Student Team Testing Smart Grid Security Project

iSchool students work in the Global Enterprise Technology Center in Hinds Hall. From L to R, Ashay Jawale, Gerald Jamar Smith, Samarth Shivaramu, Olevia Mitchell, and Eleni Dimitriou.

By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

In an era when digital devices talk to one another to accomplish tasks, how will industries protect conversations between them and the information those exchanges transmit to maintain the security of their systems and networks? 

That is the central question that a group of five students from the School of Information Studies (iSchool) is examining in an interdisciplinary research project with industry partners Unisys and National Grid. The effort, being led by Associate Professors Jason Dedrick and David Dischiave, revolves around a Unisys technology called Stealth. The product makes networks and their attached controls invisible to unauthorized users, protecting data-in-motion across any network. (The technology’s marketing theme is, “You Can’t Hack What You Can’t See.”)

 
 
  Jason Dedrick (top) and Dave Dischiave

The student project applies Stealth technology to a new smart-grid system National Grid operates in Massachusetts. The project was conceived by Dedrick after conversations with Unisys about applying Stealth to the “Internet of Things.” Given his research on smart grid adoption by utilities, he concluded that the network and information security challenges inherent in smart grid technologies provided a unique testing ground for Stealth technology. His idea was to have the students pair the technology to the grid, then try to hack the system to see how it held up to the test.

“The project is looking at preventing hacking of the utility’s information systems through smart grid systems,” Dedrick explained. “The students are working to figure out how Stealth can be used to protect against an attack in that kind of environment, in terms of the equipment being used, the software, and the communication networks.”

Students have benefitted from the focus and resources both Unisys and National Grid have invested, including the time of trainers and executives working directly with the team, according to Professor Dischiave. He oversees the iSchool’s Global Enterprise Technology Center, where the project is housed.

Unisys representatives came to campus to interview team members, selecting five students for the team: graduate students Olevia Mitchell, Gerald Jamar Smith, Ashay Jawale, and Samarth Shivaramu; and undergraduate student Eleni Dimitriou. Next was an online orientation, then trainers visited campus to provide a “deep dive” over an intensive learning weekend. National Grid executives visited campus recently to begin arranging for system trials, Dedrick said.   

Dischiave said that the benefits of this kind of experiential learning experience are unparalleled for students, yet typical of the iSchool environment. “You couldn’t architect a class this complex with all the players we have here. You rarely see this level of commitment from an industry partner; yet they’ve thrown out all the stops. They’ve sent people up here and made accommodations for us that are absolutely unbelievable,” he observed, noting how the project permits a wide range of learning.

Beneficial for Companies

Robert Johnson, distinguished engineer at Unisys, who heads the Stealth operation, says the company’s work with students has produced mutual benefits already. Unisys likes “having an independent group evaluate Stealth in a new usage model and market, and connecting Unisys to a major player, (National Grid) that is in the forefront of smart grid/smart meter deployments,” he said. “Our hope is that the Unisys Stealth solution will become an integral part of the core security infrastructure of smart grids and smart meters.”

Jim Braca, engineering manager at Unisys, said it makes sense for his company to partner with universities and other industry partners because “these ideas and technologies are going to touch all of our lives in the future, and we are excited to be part of this adventure. I expect that the collaborative effort in this…will help foster new ideas, new solutions and future working relationships with other partners on all fronts.”

Stephen Koscs, principal communications engineerat National Grid US Protection and Telecommunications Engineering, said the company “welcome[s] the opportunity to work withstudents and faculty whenever possible. “One of the promises of this project is the potential to develop a security solution that overlays the entire network regardless of the hardware installed,” he explained. “We would like to see if this is a viable solution that would reduce complexity during both initial deployment and the on-going operation of the network.”

Students will continue to focus on configuring and testing the technology in an environment that simulates key parts of National Grid’s Worcester pilot project and are planning to provide an official report of their outcomes at the end of the semester, Dedrick said.

Enriching for Students

Students are finding the experiencing enriching, too. Olevia Mitchelllikes “the different and interdisciplinary elements of the project…a security software company, a utility, a university. “I don’t’ come from a technical background, so I’m learning a lot about something that’s completely foreign to me,” she noted. Gerald Jamar Smith, a graduate student who is changing careers from statistics and healthcare analytics to information security, said the project is helping him reach that goal. “I’m learning a lot about information security networking and applying the skills. I’m really enjoying getting the applied angle of things,” he observed.

Grad student Ashay Jawale said he appreciates the opportunity to research, learn, and apply a new technology since “from a career perspective, it definitely adds value to my profile. This is one of the early attempts to secure smart meter and smart grid networks, end to end, with the help of [Stealth] technology.” Samarth Shivaramu, a second-year telecommunications and network management grad student, said that working on the project has “bolstered my passion in the networking area. Interacting with people from the companies gives me insights into how the companies work and what the real-time threats are.”

For Eleni Dimitriou, the only undergraduate iSchool student on the team, the project “is going to help me in pursuing my master’s degree and possibly a Ph.D.” she said, noting the rarity of such an opportunity for an undergraduate student. “This project wouldn’t be possible without the support of the iSchool, our professors, Unisys and the National Grid. The amount of time every single person has invested into this project is invaluable, from the training we had, the meetings (virtually or face-to-face) and all the support from everyone, which is one of our motivating factors.”